Category Archives: contemplation

St. Cyril of Alexandria (d.444)


Pope Francis, speaking in his recent Apostolic Exhortation “Gaudete et exultate” of “the saints next door” – the ordinary holy people of our world– says “Their lives may not always have been perfect, yet even amid their faults and failings they kept moving forward and proved pleasing to the Lord.” (3) They persevere.

The pope in that same exhortation says that canonized saints have their faults and failings too.“Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect. What we need to contemplate is the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person.” (22)

Later in his letter, Francis speaks about the dangers of modern day Pelagianism and cautions that when some say “ all things can be accomplished with God’s grace, deep down they tend to give the idea that all things are possible by the human will, as if it were something pure, perfect, all-powerful, to which grace is then added. They fail to realize that “not everyone can do everything”, and that in this life human weaknesses are not healed completely and once for all by grace. (49)

Being holy, being a saint, doesn’t mean you’re perfect, the pope says. That’s good to remember when we consider St.Cyril of Alexandria, the 4th century bishop of Alexandria and doctor of the church, whose feast is today, June 26th.

If you read his online biography in Wikipedia–where many today look for information about saints – you’ll find that he was deeply involved in the messy partisan politics of his time, when Christians, Jews and Pagans fought and schemed to control the city that was then probably the most important city in the Roman empire. He was a “proud Pharaoh;” “ a monster” out to destroy the church, some said, an impulsive bishop in a riotous city. That’s the way the Wikipedia biography mainly sees him.

He was a saint, others said. Why a saint? Well, Cyril was absorbed in understanding and defending the Incarnation of the Word of God. Did the Word of God come among us? How did he come? Who was Jesus Christ? Pursuing that mystery defined Cyril during life.

He thought and wrote extensively about this mystery; it absorbed him. The way he came to express it was used at the Council of Ephesus (431) and became the way we also express it in our prayers. Mary was the Mother of God. The One born of her was not simple another human being. Her Son was true God, who would be truly human and eventually die on the Cross. God “so loved the world” that he came among us as Mary’s Son.

What we see as “the totality” of Cyril’s life, his “life’s jouney”, the “overall meaning of his person”, to use the pope’s words, is not his involvment in the violent politics of city and society of his day, but his quest to know Jesus Christ.

The Elusive Prayer

by Orlando Hernandez

The Gospel readings for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of the 7th Week of Easter present to us the whole of Chapter 17 of the Gospel of John, Jesus’ beautiful prayer at the end of the Last Supper discourses. Cardinal Fulton Sheen, in his book Life of Christ, calls this chapter “Our Lord’s ‘My Father’”. Jesus must have said these words out loud in front of the Apostles, otherwise it could not have been recorded. I imagine Him, His eyes streaming with tears of joy and sorrow, arms open, facing heaven, saying these words like a nightingale in full-throated song.

Cardinal Sheen writes : “In the Our Father which He taught men to pray there were seven petitions. In His ‘My Father’ there were also seven petitions, and they had reference to His Apostles who are the foundation of His Kingdom on earth. First, their continual union with Him; second, their joy as a result of this union; third, their preservation from evil; fourth, their sanctification in the truth which is Himself; fifth, their unity with one another; sixth, that eventually they may be with Him; and seventh, that they may perceive His glory.”

I try to find the parts of Jesus’ prayer that illustrate these points. I almost seem to find them, and then I forget what they were; it’s so strange. This is the chapter of the Bible that I have read the most, and it always eludes me in some mysterious way. There is so much to it. I still cannot wrap my mind around it. It is like some of my deepest, most powerful prayer experiences. My heart is humming afterwards. My eyes might be full of tears, but I cannot find the words to express what I experience, almost as if I have forgotten most of it, like waking from a dream.

The part that remains with me the most is where Jesus, after praying for His Apostles, says, “I pray not only for these, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as You Father are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that You sent me.” (Jn 17: 20-21)

In his book The World’s Religions, Huston Smith comments on how perhaps the greatest psychological force that prompted so many thousands of people throughout the Roman Empire to consider Christianity, was the impressive unity, solidarity, and mutual sacrifice that the followers of The Way exhibited.

When our beloved leader and teacher, Fr. Owen Lally CP was alive, we would conclude our Charismatic prayer meetings by holding hands around the altar with the Monstrance containing the Living Blessed Sacrament, and would sing:
“Father, make us one.
Father, make us one,
that the world may know
That You sent Your Son.
Father make us one.”

I always felt it was the most powerful moment of our prayer meeting, when the presence of God was the most palpable to me. I felt as if our prayer group would never break up. I would realize that Jesus’ prayer in John 17 was being fulfilled right then and there. Years later, we still conclude with this song even in the absence of Fr. Owen, and of the Blessed Sacrament, the effect is still so unifying and holy.

Jesus, High Priest and Teacher, I thank You for this prayer that You say even for me. May it be always a “holy space” where I may be able to go and meet You. May it inspire us all not to lose hope in this “world” that refuses to accept Your words of love and peace. May we, as Your Church, be able to look into each others eyes, smile and say, without fear or embarrassment, “Father make us one.”

Orlando Hernández

Will the Spring Rains Come?

 April showers. Spring rains.

Cyril of Jerusalem has a wonderful sermon on water that he preached to catechumens centuries ago. Here are a couple of lines:

“Water comes down from heaven as rain, and although it is always the same itself, it produces many different effects, one in the palm tree, another in the vine, and so on throughout the whole of creation. It does not come down, now as one thing, now as another, but while remaining essentially the same, it adapts itself to the needs of every creature that receives it.”

The saint goes on to say that just as water adapts itself to every creature, the Holy Spirit gives life to each one according to its needs and to benefit the common good. The Spirit’s coming is gentle, not felt as a burden, with tenderness, as a true friend, to save, heal, counsel, strengthen and console.

So back to spring rains. Will they come this year? Climate change? Is it at work with the spring? The magnolia tree outside my room hopes the rains will come, and the other trees and plants in our garden hope they will too. They’re waiting for the rain to fall on the earth to do what it always does. Like the Spirit of God, water brings life.

Send the spring rains, Lord.

Tenebrae: Holy Saturday

Today’s Tenebrae readings speak of Jesus’ burial in the earth; the seed falls to the ground. Jesus will brings life:

“My heart rejoices, my soul is glad,

Even my body shall rest in safety,

For you will not leave my soul among the dead

Or let your beloved know decay.” Psalm 16

His promise extends not only to humanity, but to creation itself. “Cry out with joy to the Lord, all the earth. Serve the Lord with gladness.”“

Tenebrae for Holy Saturday ends with an ancient homily:

“Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.”

“The earth trembled and is still…” 

The Passion of Jesus is not only a human story; creation takes part in it too. At his death “the earth quaked, rocks were split” Matthew’s gospel says. (Matthew 27,51) “From noon onwards darkness came over the whole land till three in the afternoon,” Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us.

 The sun that rules the day, the moon that rules the night respond as Jesus cries out in a loud voice and gives up his spirit. Artists through the centuries place sun and moon at the cross of Jesus.

Remember too those great elemental realities blood and water, which John’s gospel says flowed from the side of Christ when a soldier pierced his side. Water refreshed with its contact with the Word of God; blood source of life for living creatures come from the side of Jesus. They also share in the mystery of redemption.

The homily for today says that Jesus at his death goes “to search for our first parent…to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve…I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.”

Artists from the eastern Christian traditon see the Passion of Jesus leading to a great redemption. Jesus does not rise alone, but humanity and creation itself  will follow him.

When Does the Passion of Jesus Begin?

Bethany, East Jerusalem

We usually begin the story of the Passion of Jesus with his agony in the garden and end it with his crucifixion, but it’s seen differently in our liturgy. The Passion of Jesus begins on Palm Sunday– also called Passion Sunday– and continues through all the days of Holy Week. The entire week tells the story of his Passion.

When Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday he comes to the city he loves; he’s never afraid here, it’s a Holy City to him. From childhood its temple was “ his Father’s house,” where he sat with learned teachers, “listening to them and asking them questions.”(Luke 2, 41-52) Now, those teachers are deciding to put him to death.

In these early days of Holy Week, Jesus stays in Bethany, an enclave of Jerusalem, where he usually stayed, the scriptures indicate. Bethany was where the Galileans encamped when they came for the feasts. He would be surrounded by friends here. Here he raised Lazarus from the dead; they honored him at a meal here. It was hard for the temple police to reach him here.

But suddenly:

“One of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot,
went to the chief priests and said,
“What are you willing to give me
if I hand him over to you?”
They paid him thirty pieces of silver,
and from that time on he looked for an opportunity to hand him over.” (Matthew 26, 14-15)

Betrayal fell like a dark cloud upon Bethany. He’s no longer safe. His own friends would abandon him, a disciple would betray him.

No need to speculate on what Jesus was thinking; our scripture readings tell us. Like the Prophet Isaiah he has second thoughts: “Though I thought I had toiled in vain, and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength.”

Wouldn’t Jesus have thoughts of futility, loss of trust, disappointment? Still, like Isaiah he says:
“Yet my reward is with the LORD,
my recompense is with my God.” (Isaiah 49, 1-6)

“I have become an outcast to my brothers,
a stranger to my mother’s sons,
because zeal for your house consumes me,
and the insults of those who blaspheme you fall upon me.” (Psalm 69)

But he doesn’t turn back; he doesn’t turn away.
“The Lord GOD is my help,
therefore I am not disgraced;
I have set my face like flint,
knowing that I shall not be put to shame.”

In these early days of Holy Week Jesus faces death in many forms. He faces rejection and betrayal and the prospect of a cruel execution. Before the soldiers roughly treat him, before he’s scourged and mocked and crowned with thorns, before nails are pounded into hands and feet and he dies on the cross, he turns to his Father and sets his “face like flint.” He will go to the Upper Room, near the temple, and give himself to his disciples, in the signs of bread and wine. He will offer them his love. He will go into the garden and earnestly pray to do his Father’s will, because that is why he came.

For commentary on the Passion of Christ see

The Journey to Jerusalem

Jesus begins to set out for Jerusalem in today’s reading at Mass from the 10th chapter of Mark’s gospel. Matthew offers a similar account in the 19th and 20th chapters of his gospel.

Jesus doesn’t go to Jerusalem alone, he invites others to go with him. It’s a journey to resurrection and life and more than a couple of days, but as they hear Jesus describe the way to Jerusalem, people react like people do,

You can’t miss human weakness in the journey stories of Mark’s and Matthew’s gospel, beginning with the Pharisees. I suppose they represent human doubt and questioning that’s always there. The disciples rebuked the women bringing their children forJesus’ blessing, and Jesus rebukes them. Be like children to make the journey, Jesus tells them.

The rich young man wants to hold on to what he has, so he goes away sad. Peter says proudly he’ s given up everything to follow Jesus, but we know how inconstant he is. The story of the brothers, James and John, is obviously a story of human ambition.

1 Hundred Guilder Print
Rembrandt Hundred Guilder Print

Matthew offers Mark’s stories in chapter 19 and 20 of his gospel. The artist Rembrandt drew a remarkable picture of the 19th and 20th chapter of Matthew called the Hundred Guilder Print.

Jesus stands at the center of Rembrandt’s work, bathed in light, his hands outstretched to the crowds before him.

Peter stands at Jesus right, close by. Other disciples, probably James and John, are next to him. Women and their children, whom the disciples told to go away, are next to them. The rich young man is also there in the crowd. Is he reconsidering?

Some of the enemies of Jesus who plotted against him and argued with him are also there, talking among themselves, but they’re still in the picture. Rembrandt even pictures the camel, back by the city gates.

Jesus sheds his light on them all. His arms are open to them all. Rembrandt has it right. Grace is more powerful than human weakness. It’s everywhere.

We’re Not Alone

genesis man alone copy 2
The LORD God said:
“It is not good for the man to be alone.
I will make a suitable partner for him.”
(Genesis 2,18)

We usually rush on when we hear these words to the creation of Eve, who becomes “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh” for Adam, and the human story begins.

But the Genesis account  we read today and a medieval artist (above) remind us that God first “formed out the ground various wild animals and various birds of the air, and he brought them to the man… but none proved to be the suitable partner for the man.” (Genesis 2,19 ff)

Adam signals to God these new creatures are not enough, but does he dismiss them altogether for Eve? Whether they realize it or not, the two will not be alone on this planet. Besides caring for each other, their destiny is to care for the creatures Adam names. They’re their partners too and share this common home.